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20 Years Ago Toolroom Launched From An Office In An Actual Tool Shed – Billboard

todayJuly 26, 2023 1

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“Toolroom” isn’t some metaphor.

In 2003, the electronic record label was launched by producer Mark Knight and his brother Stuart. The imprint was named for their office space — an actual tool shed in the yard of a house in their native Maidstone, 90 minutes southeast of London. From this humble setting, the pair began releasing house records largely by Mark, who was then also fusing house and techno into a new sound.

20 years later, the genre that Toolroom helped create its name on — tech house — is the most popular sound in commercial dance music. But while Toolroom laid the foundations for this phenomenon, Toolroom isn’t necessarily the genre’s biggest commercial star. The Knight brothers are okay with that.

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“We were always just a little bit too early,” Mark says over Zoom. “We would always do the groundwork for everyone to just come and go, ‘Thanks for getting that off the ground.’ I remember 15 years ago, talking about why I love tech house, and people were just looking at me like, ‘What the f— are you playing me?’”

But that hasn’t stopped Toolroom from becoming not just a respected label outputting relevant records, but a company that’s evolved its offerings, and revenue streams, in each era of its existence

With Mark as creative lead and Stuart heading the business, Toolroom launched in a precarious moment, two years after the advent of the iPod and at a time when physical sales were dwindling. “We could see on the horizon how digital would take over and how it would affect us,” says Stuart.

The early years found Mark traveling to New York and other U.S. dance hubs to play shows, staying on friends’ couches to save money while trying to break his name in the States. The label gained real traction during its initial treks to Miami Music Week, which provided, says Stuart, “the first opportunity we had to be around both industry and customers.”

This customer access expanded significantly in 2004 with the launch of Beatport, the digital download store for DJs. Toolroom was one of the first labels to put its music up for sale on the platform, which was then based in Denver. For the following few years, 70% of Toolroom music bought via Beatport was by customers in the U.S. By 2014, Mark would become Beatport’s best selling artist, behind deadmau5.

Mark Knight and Toolroom staff

Mark Knight and members of the Toolroom staff

Courtesy of Toolroom Records

“We were a small label in a tool room in a small town outside of London selling our music in the U.S., which has always been the hardest territory for a U.K. label to break in,” says Stuart. “It was an eye-opener that we didn’t have to jump on a tour bus and tour the whole of the U.S. [to gain success.]”

In this same era, circa 2007, Mark was also touring the States, capitalizing on the label’s U.S. growth and proselytizing for his still-then-underground house/techno fusion. Hits in this era included Knight and Funkagenda’s “Man With the Red Face” and Knight’s remix of Florence + The Machine’s “You’ve Got the Love.” Meanwhile, Toolroom was also releasing tracks by greats including Fatboy Slim, Underworld, Armand van Helden and a flurry of rising stars.

Then, a few years later, EDM happened. Like many labels at the time, Toolroom was swept into the phenomenon, despite the fact that they didn’t necessarily care for it. (“It was so big and also unrelatable,” says Mark, “when you see people jumping out of private jets spraying champagne on each other and we’re working nine to five trying to make those records big.”) Still, they shifted releases to fit more into the big room sound that was pulling millions of new fans to the genre while generating billions of dollars for the global dance industry.

“In the midst of that, we were putting out music from Hardwell and people like that,” says Mark, “which wasn’t really what we were about.”

In time, feeling a course correction was necessary, the label launched a 2014 #RESET campaign during which it slimmed down its artist roster, launched a new album series and reconfigured its live events in an effort get back in line with the Knight brothers’ original vision.

“I don’t mean to sound condescending, but it’s really basic music,” Mark says of EDM. “And it’s great because it appeals to a broad audience, but we always knew that if we just stay true to ourselves, when those people have kind of refined their tastes and the drugs have worn off a bit, they’ll realize, ‘I don’t actually like this, because it’s actually crap — but I really like this, because it’s the more sophisticated end of that world.’”

Mark Knight with fans

Mark Knight with fans

Courtesy of Toolroom Records

In fact that’s actually happened, with house, techno and tech house becoming the prevailing commercial sounds of U.S. dance music, with the U.S. scene catching up to the sleek, sexy, adult vibe Toolroom has been promoted since its inception.

“I stuck with it, and I guess if we hadn’t made those move,s we wouldn’t have the Fishers and Chris Lakes of this world enjoying the success of the groundwork we put in, and look — good luck to them. They’ve embraced what it’s about, and they’ve commercialized and done very well from it.”

Meanwhile Toolroom and its 15-artist roster have stayed largely in the realm of club records and clubs sets, which include upcoming shows in New York, Toronto, Montreal, Chicago and London throughout August. Toolroom has also evolved the business, with its Toolroom Academy launching in 2016 to offer DJ courses, sample packs, software and plug-ins. Prices range from $50 for an online course to $10,000 for a three-month intensive, with the label using the school as a talent pool and often signing particularly good productions. The Academy now has roughly 7,000 students. Mark says Toolroom also now earns more revenue via Peloton than it does from Beatport sales.

“We have evolved from a record label to a record company,” says Stuart. “A record label puts out music; a record company puts out music, but finds everything they can around putting out music to monetize. That’s really exciting, because one week it can be putting out music, the next week it’s, ‘How does that fit into someone doing a spin class, or educating someone how to produce?’”

Two decades in, Toolroom now has a staff of 22 and an actual office space for them to work from. Mark’s weekly Toolroom Radio program draws 16 million weekly listener. In 2018 the label launched its We Are Listening Initiative to identify releases from female producers. 2023 releases from KC Lights, Leftwing & Kody and ESSEL have been streamed millions of times. It’s a lot of accomplishments for a label Mark says has always just been “a little bit ahead of the game.”

“That’s cool in our own way, because we’re pioneering,” he continues. “We can always look back and say we were the first to make these moves. Did we make as much money as some of the other guys? Maybe not. But you know, we’re very happy with where we are in life.”





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Written by: Soft FM Radio Staff

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